Friday, November 23, 2018

Japan with kids: things to do and practical tips

Almost every time we told friends or family that we were going to Japan with the girls the answer was a face of shock, accompanied with an "Are you crazy?" exclamation, even from people who had already been there.

The truth is we love to travel and we want to transfer this love to our children. They are more or less used to it too. Ever since my friend Lauren gave me the best postpartum advice I ever got (which was: "go out of the house everyday"), we have been out and about every single day and so both of our girls are used to napping on the go, laying flat in the stroller or in the baby carrier.

Now, back to Japan. We like to take city hikes, know the place by walking the neighborhoods, visiting supermarkets and playgrounds, doing normal everyday stuff aside from the touristic sights. This has the advantage of minimizing the time spent on public transportation, which can sometimes be difficult to navigate. Our oldest daughter is now almost 5 years old, but, of course we couldn't expect her to keep up with our long walks, so we brought two umbrella strollers (Chicco liteways) and our beloved Baby carrier (a Lillebaby).

We found Japan to be quite child-friendly, as there are a million fun things to do with kids, more than can be done in one trip. To get your ideas I highly recommend the blog: "An epic education', a children-travel blog originally specific for Japan.

If you are travelling with infants, relax. There are nursing and changing rooms pretty much everywhere, from restaurants to metro stations, museums and department stores.

There are also elevators everywhere, however they were not always easy to find in some of the biggest metro stations and sometimes we just gave up and carried the strollers up.

These houses were actual nursing rooms, completely clean and private!
As for food, small convenience shops will be your everyday stop. Chains like Family Mart, Seven Eleven and Lawson sell cheap, fresh and high quality food so we had a picnic lunch everyday consisting of Onigiri (rice balls with nori seaweed and assorted fillings), Yakitori (marinated chicken skewers, that even the pickiest eaters will enjoy), soft bread sandwiches, milk tea, mandarins and bananas. You will also find basic essentials like toothpaste, wet wipes, etc... at this type of shop, but you will find more variety at pharmacies and supermarkets.

We stayed at an apartment in Osaka for the first part of our trip which allowed us to make short day trips to Kyoto and Nara. The last stretch of our trip was reserved for Tokyo, where we did stay in a hotel, but luckily we had a small fridge and a kettle so we were able to have a small breakfast before leaving every morning.

In Kyoto the kids will have fun at the very many temples. There are always fountains at the entrance, to wash your hands and purify your spirit, where most kids will be happy to play.  There are also bells, though I am not quite sure children are intended to play with those. Keep in mind that temples are often in the middle of the mountains , so if you can, avoid the stroller in favor of the baby carrier (we couldn't, so we ended up carrying the strollers through flights and flights of stairs) or get an ultralight und foldable one (like the YoYo Zen or GB Pockit).

The shintoist deities like Inaris (foxes) will amuse the children and hopefully they will learn about spirituality. Kiyomizu-dera was beautiful and we loved to run through the endless red gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.

In Osaka there are plenty of child friendly attractions like the Aquarium, the zoo and a child museum called Kids Plaza. The latter is a combination of a science and culture museum that includes a city for the children, with slides and hanging bridges (which reminded me of Barcelona); a fully functional supermarket, a part on medicine, biology, physics, potential energy, electric trains,  a TV studio, different folk traditions of the world, and a part that focuses on solidarity / tolerance, making children experience life as a handicapped person....

My kid wouldn't pose.

 We loved visiting the aquarium, Kaiyukan. It is a spiral building with its marine ecosystems structured to follow the Pacific ring of fire, a major area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. In a large 40,000 km (25,000 mi) horseshoe shape, it is associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and volcanic belts and plate movements. It has 452 volcanoes (more than 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes).

The Tennoji zoo is quite basic but the girls had lots of fun and the Polar bear and seals seemed happy which is always a good sign. The emblematic Osaka castle is a beautiful place to visit, you can also take a little boat tour or have ice cream while you walk (the only acceptable food to eat while walking)

Visiting Nara is a must. Deer are believed to be sacred messengers and so they are left free to roam around the city and park adjacent to the temple. You will find street vendors selling deer cookies , which the deer will happily come and snatch from you , but not before elegantly bowing their heads.  I was a bit concerned about Lyme disease but according to the authorities* the deer are free of the Borrelia infection for which they are continuously screened. The infectious ticks are not passed from deer to human, rather they go from tall grass to a mammal passing buy (this means you are most likely getting bitten from hiking in the forest than from being close to animals). The areas where these tick are, supposedly, are further in the North. It does not hurt to wear long sleeves and screen for ticks after hiking in the forest, making sure to check warm places and body pleats. If the ticks are removed correctly within the first 24 hrs. the chances.of infection are very low.

As for Tokyo, you won't get tired of activities to do with children. I mean you can even go Mario-karting through the city. If you want to go to Ghibli Museum don't be like us and book in advance. We went all the way there only to find out it was closed for renovations... and then it started raining dogs and cats.  Later we found out that bookings are preferred since they want you to experience the magic world of Miyazake without crowds so only a limited amount of tickets are sold in 2 hour slots.

In Tokyo you can also visit  Kidzania, the city for children, and again, a zoo and aquarium (which we did not visit as we went to all those things in Osaka). The man made island of Odaiba is quite a fun place to visit with the children. Just the train that takes you there is amazing. It is a circular train from which you can see landmarks of Japan's architecture like the world s biggest ferry wheel and the rainbow bridge and the Fuji building. There are malls, giant robots, a toys'r us (oh the childhood memories), a replica of the statue of liberty and many museums. Teamlab Borderless, a group of artworks that form one borderless world where artworks move out of rooms, communicate with other works, influence, and sometimes intermingle with each other with no boundaries is also there in Daiba.

Visiting the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog who waited for his owner days and days, at Shibuya station (exit 8) is also a nice thing to do with children as you can tell them the story and later read a book or watch the movie together.

If you want to see the crazy, pop, cosplay Japan the place to be is Yoyogi park on Sunday afternoons. Once there visit the Meiji Shrine and continue to Takashita street where you can get giant , rainbow cotton candy, the cutest ice-cream ever and all your souvenirs. On the same line, but on a different area is the Kawaii monster cafe, a cathedral of kitsch with its rainbow pasta, blue ice cream, unicorn decorations and happy music. It is like a club but totally child friendly.

Other children specific activities are of course Tokyo Disneyland and Sanrio Puroland park, for those crazy about Hello Kitty. The Meguro parasite museum might also be a hit with school children who are not afraid of being grossed out. You will never look at your udon noodles in the same way after visiting.

All in all we tried to do the same type of activities we would do with our girls back home: look for parks and playgrounds, walk a lot, have picnics, talk about culture and the lives of people, visit museums, live the city.

And voilà, these are  our best kid-specific recommendations for visiting Japan. Have you been there? Did we miss anything?
*This was the official (and quite vague) statement of the prefecture of Nara, on a rather old post in the Lonely Planet website: "In Japan, since the first case of Lyme disease was reported in 1986, several hundreds cases have been reported. The disease is mainly found in the northern half of Japan (particularly in Hokkaido and Nagano Prefecture), while no cases of Lyme disease have been recorded in Nara Prefecture (Nara City). As for the deer in Nara Park, please rest assured that we keep close watch for any abnormalities through patrols and other means. Furthermore, there have thus far been no reports regarding Lyme disease traced to the deer of Nara Park or the ticks they may host (confirmed with the National Institute of Infectious Disease). While keeping an eye on trends in Lyme disease outbreaks, we endeavor to gather information with a scientific foundation.
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